The 521 big block cubic inch engine inside of a Ford Mystic Cobra growls as Auto Services teacher Mike Duff backs the multi-colored beauty out of the garage inside of the OE building. The student-built beast was just five days away from running at the Milan Dragway.
Then administrators at Washtenaw Community College downshifted and hit the brakes, bringing race plans to a screeching halt.
It’s an insurance thing.
“It is the finding of the college that at this time we want to make sure to cover our liabilities, and we are not yet comfortable letting that vehicle run down the track with a college employee in the driver’s seat until we have that liability addressed,” said Ross Gordon, interim dean of Vocational Technologies.
On Monday April 23, an email was sent out to various employees in the automotive department informing them of the school’s decision not to allow the Cobra to have a pass at the dragway the following Saturday. Included in that decision was a Kawasaki ZX14 motorcycle built by students as well.
After the decision was made, disappointment set in for those close to the projects.
“It’s really kind of saddening,” said Glenn Stewart, a 21-year-old automotive services major from South Lyon. “We were hoping it wouldn’t come down to this. It’s devastating.”
Stewart is one of many students who have been working on the Mystic Cobra since December of 2010, when the body and engine were donated to the school by Brian Wolf, the director of Transmission and Driveline Engineering at Ford. The project began on the first day of the Winter Semester in 2011 and has been evolving ever since.
“Every single day of the week people have been working on it,” said Anthony Minissale, 21, a technology management major.
The project began with the understanding that the car was being put together so that it would run at Milan and used as a learning tool for the students. Parts and components were donated to the college by various businesses that received advertising on the vehicle. At least $13,000 in parts were donated, according to Duff.
Well aware of the amount of work and money (some of which came from WCC) that went into the vehicle, Gordon explained the school’s position.
“We don’t want to put anyone in harm’s way and we don’t want anything bad to happen to anyone that would cast the college in a negative fashion, or be perceived as such,” Gordon said. “We certainly wouldn’t want something to happen to somebody and have it impact future students at the college. We definitely want to have all our bases covered.
“The subject is open for discussion and has been and will continue to be looking at the opportunity to cover our bases and address our liabilities to run this vehicle in the future.”
Gordon added that the school had been working it for “a series of months” to get the liability figured so the car could run. Unfortunately, a solution was not reached in time.
The students and faculty were not so much upset with the fact that they wanted to see the vehicles race (they’ve seen them run before), they were looking forward to learning from what the diagnostics would tell them about how to improve their project.
“We run the machines and it gives the students the opportunity to spend the time to make the adjustments,” said Alan Hack, a part-time instructor and lab tech. “Even the students in the future that didn’t build the bike, they can learn how to make the improvements.”
Aside from advertising the business attached to the project, Minissale pointed out what projects like these can do in terms of attracting students to the program at Washtenaw.
“If you’re a high school student and you see this, it’s like ‘Wow!’” Minissale said. “It’s a promotional tool for the college.”
While Gordon stands by the decision of the college, he is very aware of why the students and faculty are upset.
“I do understand their frustration, but I have hope and belief that in this case we’re making the right decision for this time.” Gordon said. “Through the process we’ll come to the proper outcome moving forward. I hope that they understand.”